“Why did Ultima have to die?” my student moaned. The answer I gave was vague and cynical, something along the lines of “She’s old. What do you expect?” Teenagers are famous for feeling shocked and betrayed when literary characters die. And teachers, I think, are famous for not taking these feelings seriously.
Because I’m not a full-time teacher anymore, I actually had time after the lesson to reflect on my student’s question. The answers that came to me readily were a little on the adolescent side themselves: “Because she’s old. Because Antonio needs to learn about death. Because it’s almost the end of the book.” On a good day, I might be able to produce something like “Because she has to suffer and die at the hands of others. She’s a Christ figure.” This time, though, I thought about Ultima’s death all the way through my morning coffee, shower, and commute, and we made this question the focus of the next day’s lesson.
Ultima is an elderly woman who comes to live with seven year-old Antonio’s family in their rural New Mexico town in 1945. Antonio’s brothers return from the war in a whirlwind; then two of them quickly leave again, while the third becomes a regular patron of Rosie’s brothel (“Don’t say ‘whorehouse,’ my student said. “I don’t like that word.”). Antonio’s family is deeply divided at its core. His mother prefers a settled family life lived close to the authority and structure of the Catholic church, while his father is a vaquero who feels at home only when he is active, wandering, and free. The highway maintenance work he is doing, after having surrendered to his wife’s wishes several years before the novel begins, is slowly killing his soul. He hopes his three older sons will join him on a spontaneous trip to California. His sons have inherited his wandering ways, but they want to wander on their own, without him. Antonio’s mother has given up hopes of her older sons settling down and is actively grooming Antonio for the priesthood. Antonio himself is smart, sensitive, serious, and rigid in his adherence to his Catholic faith, but secretly he can’t imagine himself as a priest.
Ultima unites this fractured family. Anaya never tells us exactly where she comes from. Antonio’s mother remembers the way Ultima cared for her during each of her six pregnancies, and both of Antonio’s parents agree that it would be disgraceful to allow Ultima to be homeless in her old age. Ultima is identified as a curandera, a woman who heals the sick using traditional methods. While no direct statement is ever made to this effect, she seems Native American to me: in touch with traditional medicine, an expert on the herbs of the region, and an outsider with no real home to go to. She acquiesces to the Catholic beliefs of Antonio’s family without actually being a practicing Catholic. Early in the novel, Antonio recognizes that some people in his town don’t trust Ultima because they think she is a witch.
The primary plot of this novel revolves around Antonio’s coming of age. He starts school, learns English, and is promoted from first grade straight into third in recognition of his intelligence. He horses around with his friends, one of whom is named Horse, and races an individual named the Vitamin Kid over a bridge on his way to school each day. Early in the novel, he secretly follows his father and a posse of other local men who set out to kill Lupito, a war veteran prone to dementia who shot the sheriff (and no, he didn’t shoot the deputy, but thanks for asking). Later, he struggles home from school in a blizzard only to come upon a gunfight in which Narciso – the town drunk who is nevertheless known as a good and decent man – dies after whispering his final confession in Antonio’s ear. Later still, his friend Florence drowns when the boys are swimming in a local quarry. Like many works of literature, this novel tends to organize key elements into groups of three, and these three deaths prepare Antonio for the final death in the novel, that of Ultima. These three deaths increase in senselessness and injustice as the novel proceeds. Lupito may have been a mentally ill veteran, but he did shoot and kill the sheriff, so Antonio is able on some level to excuse this killing, in spite of the fact that it deeply troubles him. Narciso was known as a drunken layabout, and others in the novel see his death as no great tragedy, but Antonio – who heard Narciso’s confession – deeply sympathizes with him and grieves for him. The death of Antonio’s friend Florence, who dives too deep in the quarry and becomes tangled in some barbed wire, is truly senseless and terrible, and Antonio – who, like any seven year-old, rails against a God who could allow such injustice – begins to accept the inherent unfairness of life just in time to see Ultima, whom he has come to see as a third parent, die as well.
(My student gave me a fishy look when I said that seven year-olds expect life to be fair. “I still expect life to be fair,” she said. “Is that bad?)
There’s more I can tell you, of course. Even if you’re moved by nothing else in the novel, this book is worth reading if only for the madcap Christmas pageant Antonio’s class puts on, which may be even funnier than the pageant in A Prayer for Owen Meany. In Bless Me, Ultima, there is a snowstorm on the morning of the pageant, and standard practice on snow days in this community seems to be that all the girls stay home and the boys have to go to school – because they’re tough, of course. In preparing for the pageant, though, the girls had done all the work: writing the scripts, planning the costumes and props, etc. The boys expected to show up and told what to do. (I said to my student, “This strikes me as – emotionally honest. What do you think?” Her reply: “OH YEAH.”) The result is a pageant replete with bilingual cursing and crossdressing and peeing and slipping around in puddles of urine. This is comic relief, of course, but the real purpose of this scene is to show that human life requires balance. Just as Antonio’s family shouldn’t have to choose between being farmers or cowboys, relinquishing the other lifestyle entirely, a pageant without girls is doomed to failure, not because of anything specific about girls but because life is a process of finding our balance points between opposites.
But back to my student’s original question: Why does Ultima have to die? When I started her lesson the next day, I started by saying, “Think of her name.” We had already discussed the fact that ultima means “last.” What is she the last of? She is certainly not the last wise elderly woman who can help care for the sick, but she does seem to be the last of her own specific kind – of a certain Native American tribe or tradition. As she nears her death, she instructs Antonio to take her jars of herbs out into the llano and burn them. It seems as if a world without Ultima will be divided in two like Antonio’s family, with individuals forced to choose between settling down and embracing the freedom of a transient lifestyle. Ultima herself represents the merging of those two lifestyles. She is a woman of complete freedom – certainly no one tells her what to do – and courage, but she is also rooted in the land, because the source of her wisdom and ability to heal is in the herbs she harvests from the land, a quality respected by the farmers on Antonio’s mother’s side of the family.
And then I said this: “This whole book is about death. Think about it: it begins with the end of the war, with gratitude that the war is over but also grief for the millions who died. The three deaths Antonio witnesses bring him closer and closer to the reality and also to the injustices of death. In a dream, Antonio asks God to forgive Narciso because he can’t stand the idea of Narciso’s eternal torment in hell. God replies that he will forgive Narciso only if Antonio asks God to forgive Lupito as well. This is an alarming and theologically complex moment, and I don’t remember even coming close to dealing with this moment meaningfully when I taught this book in my ninth-grade classes. This moment forces Antonio to discard the idea that some deaths are fair and some are unfair. He is willing to discount Lupito’s death because Lupito had committed the sin of murder. God – who, of course, comes to Antonio in a dream and therefore is synonymous with Antonio’s own inner wisdom – is forcing Antonio to understand that, far from being unfair, death is the epitome of fairness. For every birth, one death: no exceptions.
But then there’s more. Soon the people in town begin to hear rumors of what happened virtually in their own backyards during the war years, of the design and construction of the two atomic bombs that hastened the end of the war. Death didn’t suddenly come into being when Antonio witnessed Lupito’s death (although the novel tries to trick us into thinking it did): it was present all the time, on the other side of the mountains.
Then my student and I did a little math. “Antonio was seven years old in 1945, so he must have been born in 1938. If he were a real person, how old would he be now?” We did some quick arithmetic and determined that he would be 76 if he were alive today.
“What do you think his life would be like today?” I asked.
“He’d be old,” my student said.
“Well, sure,” I said, “but let’s imagine that he’s basically healthy and happy at 76. What kind of life do you think he would have?”
The aim of this discussion was to establish that a 76 year-old Antonio would live more or less the way we do. He would live in a city or town or suburb somewhere, in an apartment or a condo or a house. He would watch television. He might use the internet. He would visit friends and go out to restaurants. If he did get sick, he would be treated in a hospital and would likely recover. If he returned to his hometown, there would be a McDonald’s there, and a Wal-Mart, and maybe even a Starbucks. “This book is about the death of Ultima,” I said, “but it’s also about the death of a way of life. Antonio is born into a world where snow days are segregated by gender, where a schoolkid knocked unconscious during a school play is simply stepped over, where 911 calls and AED devices and Child Protective Services are nowhere in the worldview of these characters. Part of the reason for Antonio’s parents’ anxiety, I think, is the fact that they both sense that their traditional lifestyles – that of a cowboy and that of a farmer – are being caught up in some large-scale societal changes and are well on their way to being altered irreparably and even made obsolete. Death is at the very heart of this book – the death of an era and of a lifestyle.”
We also talked about what we thought Antonio would do when he grew up. The book never tells. We agreed on a couple of things, though. First, Antonio will be neither a farmer nor a vaquero. The events of this novel (and there is so much more I haven’t told you – so much more) push Antonio to recognize that his choice involves not two extremes but the infinite points along a spectrum. Second, Antonio will assume Ultima’s role as the link between the two sides of his family. He won’t replace her as a traditional healer (one of my favorite things about this novel is that Ultima deliberately does not teach Antonio what she knows. They spend long stretches of time together, and it would be hard for some novelists to avoid the temptation to have her pass her skills along to a new generation in the person of Antonio. But that wouldn’t be right, partly because in doing so Ultima would be yet another adult trying to usurp Antonio’s freedom, which is something she would never do, and partly because she is THE LAST: there will be no more Ultimas. Other things will arrive to fill the vacuum she leaves behind: cars and highways and even more destructive weapons, the Beatles and yoga and Steve Jobs and Obamacare. But no more Ultima – to allow her to live on in Antonio would be to deny her true nature), but like Ultima he will resist the temptation to divide the world into extremes. He will synthesize, not analyze. He will, of course, likely be a whole lot like Rudolfo Anaya – but that’s a story for another day.
I love this book. Every time I read it I love it more. It does exactly what To Kill a Mockingbird is supposed to do in a ninth grade curriculum – prompt discussions of coming of age, overcoming fear, recognizing injustice – but it just does these things so much better. The lyricism. The endless folding-in of Biblical mythology: Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Joseph and his brothers. The laughter. The little kids making fart jokes in front of priests. It’s just so good.